Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Prayer requests

Two terrorist attacks, one in Kenya the other in Pakistan, took place recently. The Kenya terrorists targeted non-Muslims, while the Pakistan terrorists targeted Christians (although a Muslim security guard was also killed). Dozens of people, including children, were killed in both. I don't even know what to ask for in these situations. Please pray for the families and all those affected by these acts of evil. Moreover, Christians are being targeted in Syria and (still) Egypt. Lee Stranahan asks the very humbling question: Do American Christians care?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Quote of the Day

What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s resurrection? It is as though I play with the thought. -- If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Culture and Value

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Christianity and Literature

There is a fascinating passage in C.S. Lewis's autobiography, Surprised by Joy, where he describes how, as an atheist, he was frustrated that so many of the great writers in history were deeply religious. It's a fairly long passage, but here it is.

All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it. Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too. Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed. On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete -- Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire -- all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called "tinny". It wasn't that I didn't like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books.

Now that I was reading more English, the paradox began to be aggravated. I was deeply moved by the Dream of the Rood; more deeply still by Langland; intoxicated (for a time) by Donne; deeply and lastingly satisfied by Thomas Browne. But the most alarming of all was George Herbert. Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment; but the wretched fellow, instead of doing it all directly, insisted on mediating it through what I would still have called "the Christian mythology". On the other hand most of the authors who might be claimed as precursors of modern enlightenment seemed to me very small beer and bored me cruelly. I thought Bacon (to speak frankly) a solemn, pretentious ass, yawned my way through Restoration Comedy, and, having manfully struggled on to the last line of Don Juan, wrote on the end-leaf "Never again". The only non-Christians who seemed to me really to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity. The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland's great line in the Chanson --

Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.

What strikes me about this passage is how completely alien it is to the state of literature today. Christian literature is, in general, greatly inferior to its secular counterparts. Christian literature, along with Christian music, has become derivative -- that is, it tries to imitate the successful secular styles so that Christians can read (or listen to in the case of music) those styles without being exposed to any unchristian thoughts. But the movers in the literary and musical worlds are not Christians -- or if they are, their Christianity is not central to their accomplishments: you can be fans of theirs without ever realizing that they are Christian (although there are exceptions of course). It would be an interesting study to see how this came about. I suspect it's at least partially because religious people have been divorcing themselves from the wider culture for the last 150 years or so. Thus, today, we have Christian colleges, where Christians can go to study without hearing alternative viewpoints; which, of course, means that non-Christians can go to non-Christian schools to study without ever hearing about the value of religion or the message of Christianity. All of this seems to me to be an attempt to disengage from modern culture despite the biblical injunction to be in but not of the world (John 17: 14-15; 1 Corinthians 5: 9-10). I don't know if there's a way to fix this -- I'm diagnosing the problem, not offering a cure. After all, it's not a bad thing that there are Christian colleges, they play a vital and sacred role. Moreover, it's very likely that my diagnosis is incorrect. But it's a little depressing. In Lewis's day, if someone wanted to be well-read, he couldn't avoid Christian authors. Today, we have to search to find them, and when we do the results are rarely cheering.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Here's a very biased post against postmodernism. I do analytic philosophy, but I have plenty of friends who do Continental philosophy, of which postmodernism is a subset. According to them, postmodernism has been dead in philosophy since the late 1980s. It lives on in other academic fields which don't realize this. One of those is, of course, theology, although in that case there are somewhat exonerating circumstances: theology has to be, in some sense, pastoral, and so responsive to the needs of the laymen within the Church. And while postmodernism stopped being advocated in philosophy in the 1980s (according to my friends, although philosophers like Lyotard kept writing on it), it kept trickling down into the culture, and so theologians started addressing it in the early 1990s. But this means that theologians are expending a great deal of effort developing postmodern theologies when the whole project is dead in the water.

Now Continental philosophy, the larger project, is still going strong, and there are without question outstanding Continental philosophers. In fact, as I've written before, Continental philosophy has undergone a "religious turn" or "theological turn"; many of the top Continental philosophers are Christians (like Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Henry, William Desmond, etc.). And while some of the criticisms directed against postmodernism apply to Continental philosophy as a whole (it seems to leave too much room for rampant speculation), not all of them do. And there are certainly advocates within analytic philosophy of perspectivism or subjectivism (think Quine) which would be subject to the same objections to postmodernism as well.

And that's a good enough reason to remind you of the Postmodern Generator. Every time you refresh the page, a postmodern essay is randomly generated.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A long voyage

A year ago (and since) I wrote that Voyager 1 may have left the solar system. It has now been confirmed. Of course, one may reject the definition of solar system that's being used here -- Voyager 1 isn't beyond the orbit of the Oort Cloud, a sphere of asteroids and comets that orbit the sun out to about a light year's distance. Still the working definition is a good one, and it's absolutely amazing that a man-made object is now effectively in interstellar space -- and still working.

Some other interesting science news:

1. NASA has identified three asteroids for potential capture. That is, they'll go get them, and bring them into orbit around the Moon. Pretty cool.

2. Biologists have discovered functioning mechanical gears in an insect. Actual cog wheels. This is more than pretty cool. This is mind-boggling.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

C.S. Lewis's Argument against Naturalism, part 4

In the first three posts of this series, I presented C.S. Lewis's argument from reason, which argues that naturalism is self-defeating. In this and the following post, I will present the objections raised against it by Elizabeth Anscombe.

A Summary of Anscombe’s Criticisms
G.E.M. Anscombe, a Christian philosopher and student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, presented a paper critical of Lewis’s argument from reason, as presented in his book Miracles, in February 1948 to the Socratic Club in Oxford, and which was published later that year as the premier essay in The Socratic Digest. She was not the first to criticize Miracles,{1} but the objections she raised were by far the most significant. Her essay primarily argues that Lewis employs terms with dubious definitions, and when they are corrected, the argument no longer holds.

Irrational and nonrational
Anscombe quotes Lewis’s dictum that “no thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes.”{2} However Lewis chose examples where the natural processes which influence someone to reach particular beliefs are known to mislead him into false beliefs (such as delirium tremens). It simply does not follow from this that all natural processes do so. “A causal explanation of a man’s thought only reflects on its validity as an indication, if we know that opinions caused in that way are always or usually unreasonable.”{3} “… it is only because we already know that men with delirium tremens see things that are not there … that we dismiss a man’s belief by ascribing it to delirium tremens.”{4}

Part of the problem here is that Lewis uses the term “irrational” in too broad of a sense. An irrational cause for a belief would be an invalid argument that lets one believe what one wants to believe. On the other hand, when we say that a belief is caused by something like delirium tremens, these are not irrational in the same sense as the former causes are. Rather, “they are conditions which we know to go with irrational beliefs or attitudes with sufficient regularity for us to call them their causes.”{5} Such natural causes may be “non-rational” in the sense that they are just bare facts rather than propositions, and as such, have no truth-value. This is not the same thing as being irrational, however. By conflating irrational causes and nonrational causes, Lewis has committed a category mistake, and this calls his argument into question.

Anscombe illustrates this with Lewis’s example of a man afraid of a dog. If a man says a dog is dangerous and, when asked how he knows, gives insufficient grounds for this belief, it is irrational. However, if a man says a dog is dangerous and, when asked how he knows, begins to tremble and shake his head, his belief is not based on insufficient grounds: it is completely groundless. It is caused by some event in his past or some dysfunction of his psyche, and so is nonrational rather than irrational.

Paradigm case
Anscombe goes on to challenge Lewis’s claim that we have to believe in the validity of reason. “You can talk about the validity of a piece of reasoning, and sometimes about the validity of a kind of reasoning; but if you say you believe in the validity of reasoning itself, what do you mean?”{6} Here, Anscombe is challenging Lewis’s claim that if we can call an isolated belief irrational if it springs from irrational causes, we can equally call all of our beliefs irrational if they are all the result of irrational causes.

Her point is that in order to understand valid reasoning, we would have to have an example of it.{7} As such, to question the validity of all reasoning appears nonsensical, since it would imply the possibility of there being no valid example of reasoning, and so no concept of valid reasoning could ever be formed. Moreover, part of our understanding of valid reasoning comes from contrasting it with invalid reasoning. Yet we would need at least one example of each in order for such a contrast to take place. “Anscombe here is employing the Paradigm Case argument, an argument against the possibility of meaningfully raising certain skeptical questions.”{8}

Antony Flew -- an atheist philosopher who participated in the Socratic Club, and even took part in a debate on Christianity and Plato later that month -- illustrates this by comparing it to hallucination. There is nothing problematic about asking whether a particular perception is hallucinatory or real. “But it is preposterous to ask whether all perceptions taken together are hallucinatory. The term ‘real perception’ and the term ‘hallucinatory perception’ derive their usual significance from their mutual contrast, and from the tests used to decide which is applicable.”{9} Suggesting that all perceptions might be hallucinations is not just a ridiculous claim: it is incoherent. “Hallucination” does not mean anything without the contrast of real perception. Similarly, an irrational belief does not mean anything without the contrast of a rational one.

Naturalistic explanations
Anscombe then asks what exactly in the naturalistic worldview would prevent any of the reasons for a belief from applying. If we are asked for an explanation of a particular belief, “what in the naturalistic hypothesis prevents that explanation from being given and from meaning what it does?”{10} The naturalist scenario, at least as naturalists understand it, does not preclude someone believing something and giving an explanation for this belief when challenged.

In fact, this leads to a great irony in Lewis’s argument. He condemns attempts to refute beliefs based on their allegedly irrational credentials, such as Freudians claiming that traditional beliefs are the result of psychological processes in the subconscious. This, however, is presumptuous and inappropriate. We should judge a belief on whether or not it is true; any other factors are simply irrelevant.{11}

Yet after condemning this fallacy, he turns around and commits it himself. Any belief with irrational causes is thereby invalidated; so if all beliefs have irrational causes, all beliefs are invalid. Recall his claim that, if naturalism were true, “The finest piece of scientific reasoning is caused in just the same irrational way as the thoughts a man has because a bit of bone is pressing on his brain.”{12} But to dismiss a belief because it has irrational causes is precisely the Bulverism fallacy. To argue that a belief is made invalid by such irrational causes “does not follow at all. Whether his conclusions are rational or irrational is settled by considering the chain of reasoning that he gives and whether his conclusions follow from it.”{13} Regardless of whether someone reached a belief for irrational or nonrational reasons, we cannot, on those grounds, reject it. The validity of a particular belief is not determined by whether the person who drew it did so in accord with the correct logical procedures, but whether we can do so upon further investigation.

Reasons and causes
This leads to the heart of Anscombe’s critique, that one type of explanation does not rule out another type. Lewis had assumed that giving a naturalistic explanation of a particular belief was incompatible with giving a rational one, in fact that any given phenomenon has only one complete explanation. Anscombe argues to the contrary that the rational and naturalistic explanations are just two different ways of describing the same phenomenon; both can be correct simultaneously.

As a Wittgensteinian, Anscombe was content to view different types of explanations as different “language games.” A “full” explanation would be one which fully answers the questions of an inquirer. As Victor Reppert writes,

… there can be many explanations for the same event. For example, if we ask, “Why is the soda can sitting on the bookshelf?” I can answer correctly, “Because I put it there yesterday,” or “because I wanted it to be recycled,” or “because no one has knocked it over,” or “because the shelf holds it up,” or “because of the law of gravity,” or even “because it is cylindrical,” which explains why it stays put on the bookshelf and doesn’t roll around. We must admit, with Anscombe, the question-relativity of explanations and also that different explanations can be given for the same event.{14}

Such explanations “are not mutually exclusive. They are not even in competition.”{15}

Lewis, essentially, has confused the causes of a belief with its grounds. His failure to distinguish between irrational and nonrational causes leads him to use other terms in an ambiguous manner as well, specifically the terms “reason,” “why,” “cause,” “because,” and “explanation.” When we ask why someone believes something, we can answer in terms of what caused the belief, or we can answer in terms of what grounds the belief. The former would yield a nonrational answer, while the latter would yield either a rational or an irrational one. Both answers would begin with “because,” but would be a different type of explanation.

Anscombe’s point is that these two types of explanation do not contradict each other. They are merely describing the same thing from different perspectives. Anscombe even adds on to the naturalistic and rational explanations of a belief two more: one can give a psychological explanation why one has a belief, and one can give a personal history explanation of why one has a belief.{16} None of these explanations are in competition with each other, and all can be true of the same belief simultaneously.

Anscombe goes into some detail about the difference between a causal-type of explanation and a grounds-type of explanation. Lewis seems to be arguing that if a belief has an irrational or nonrational cause, the person believing it did not reach that belief by reasoning. If the belief turns out to be true “we regard it as accidental.”{17}

But this is not the role that reasons play in our beliefs. Causes are mechanical, physical regularities based on observation. Reasons “are what is elicited from someone whom we ask to explain himself.”{18} So, in contrast to Lewis’s claim that reasons are “a special kind of cause.”{19} Anscombe seems to think that reasons are not causes at all. Thus, reasons and causes are completely different spheres, different language games, that have nothing to do with each other. “It appears to me that if a man has reasons, and they are good reasons, and they are genuinely his reasons, for thinking something -- then his thought is rational, whatever causal statements we make about him.”{20}

In the notes of the discussion following Anscombe’s presentation, and a supplemental comment by Lewis,{21} he acknowledges the difference between causes and grounds, but argues that a belief could only be considered rational when its cause is the recognition of its grounds. If one only arrives at a belief because of causes that have nothing to do with the grounds, then it seems that the grounds for that belief play no role in one’s holding of it. The final assessment of those in attendance was that Lewis “would have to turn his argument into a rigorous analytic one.”

Anscombe’s critique can be reduced to the following points, not necessarily of equal importance, and some of which bleed into each other:

1. Lewis conflates different types of nonrational processes: just because some nonrational processes lead to false beliefs, it does not follow that all do so.

2. Lewis conflates nonrational processes with irrational processes. If his argument is that having irrational causes for a belief invalidate it, it does not follow that nonrational causes do likewise.

3. The paradigm case argument. Suggesting that a position would invalidate all reasoning is nonsensical, since we would not be able to understand what these terms mean without examples of both. It would erase the distinction between valid and invalid reasoning. However, this distinction may be the only way we can understand what valid or invalid reasoning is.

4. There is nothing in the naturalistic worldview which would prevent a person from giving a rational explanation for a belief and meaning it.

5. Bulverism. Lewis, ironically, commits his own fallacy. A belief is not justified by how it was formed, but by whether or not it is true.

6. Lewis fails to distinguish between a belief’s grounds and its causes. Both may use the same terms (“reason,” “why,” “cause,” “because,” and “explanation”), but they are two distinct types of explanation that do not preclude each other.

In the next post in this series I will analyze these points in more detail.


{1} See, for example, Robert Eisler, Review of Miracles: A Preliminary Study, by C.S. Lewis, Hibbert Journal 45 (1946-47): 373-77.
{2} C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 1st ed. (London: Bles, 1947), 27.
{3} G.E.M. Anscombe, “A Reply to Mr C.S. Lewis’s Argument that ‘Naturalism’ is Self-Refuting,” in The Collected Philosophical Papers of G.E.M. Anscombe, vol. 2: Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), 231.
{4} Ibid., 224.
{5} Ibid., 225.
{6} Ibid., 226.
{7} It should be pointed out that Anscombe leaves this point open: she writes, “Whether you would adopt this method or some other (though I do not know of any other) …” (ibid., 226)
{8} Victor Reppert, “The Lewis-Anscombe Controversy: A Discussion of the Issues,” Christian Scholar’s Review 19 (1989): 37.
{9} Antony Flew, “The Third Maxim,” The Rationalist Annual 72 (1955): 64-65.
{10} Anscombe, “Reply to Mr C.S. Lewis,” 226.
{11} C.S. Lewis, “‘Bulverism’: or, The Foundation of 20th Century Thought,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (1970; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 271-77; idem, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock, 215.
{12} Lewis, Miracles, 1st ed., 28.
{13} Anscombe, “Reply to Mr C.S. Lewis,” 227.
{14} Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 66.
{15} John Beversluis, C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 74.
{16} Anscombe, “Reply to Mr C.S. Lewis,” 230-31.
{17} Ibid., 228.
{18} Ibid., 229.
{19} Lewis, “Bulverism,” 275.
{20} Anscombe, “Reply to Mr C.S. Lewis,” 229.
{21} Ibid., 231-32; C.S. Lewis, “Religion Without Dogma?” in God in the Dock, 144-46.

(see also part 1part 2part 3part 5part 6, and part 7)

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Devil Dogs on a Plane: A Proposal

On this 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, rather than dwelling on the attacks themselves like I did before, I'm going to make a constructive suggestion. One response to 9/11 was that the government trained some air marshalls, airplane security guards in a sense. But I don't think the way the government has been doing this is sufficient.

So here's my suggestion: create a new Marine Corps MOS (Military Occupation Specialty, i.e. job) of Air Marshall or Flight Security or whatever. One would have to pass a security background check and would be heavily trained in close-quarters hand-to-hand combat. They would be armed. They would also have to be inconspicuous, meaning they would have to be allowed to grow their hair and facial hair. By making this an MOS there would be a fairly large number of Marines, a few thousand, whose job would just be to fly around and protect the planes from terrorists. Put one or two on planes originating or landing in the United States.

Why think this will work? Because it did before. In the aftermath of World War I, gangsters were robbing the US mail system. It became such a chronic problem that they decided to put a couple of Marines on the trains carrying registered mail. And the robberies stopped. The linked article gives some excerpts from the training manual given to the Marines charged with the security of the mail:

Q. Suppose he [the robber] is using a gun or making threats with a gun in trying to escape?
A. Shoot him.
Q. Is there a general plan for meeting a robbery?
A. Yes; start shooting and meet developments as they arise thereafter.
Q. If I hear the command "Hands Up," am I justified in obeying this order?
A. No; fall to the ground and start shooting.
Q. Is it possible to make a successful mail robbery?
A. Only over a dead Marine.

Now I know there are people who would not feel comfortable on a plane with someone who had weapons and had been given orders like this. That would be the terrorists. Like it or not, the Marines have a reputation of being a force to be reckoned with. As was the case with the mail system, 99% of the battle would already be won just by having the Marines there as a deterrent. The other 1% would be over in a few seconds.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Counting the days

I've argued before that I don't think the days of creation in Genesis 1 should be understood as calendar days (or solar days, human days, "normal" days, or whatever). The Hebrew word for day, yom, can be defined -- in fact can be literally defined -- as an extended period of indeterminate length, and if you think it should be understood metaphorically that opens up even more possible definitions.

One common objection to this is that when yom is modified by a number (e.g. first day, second day, etc.) in the Bible, its meaning is restricted to a calendar day. There are a few problems with this, but the biggest one is that it's false: yom plus a numerical modifier is used in the Old Testament to refer to a period of indefinite length. The best example of this is Zechariah 14:7-8 which uses the phrase yom echad (day one) to refer to a long period of time. Many translations do not translate that phrase as "one day" or "day one" but that is the Hebrew phrase. Here's the passage:

It will be a unique day [yom echad], without daytime [yom] or nighttime [layelah] -- a day known to the LORD. When evening ['ereb] comes, there will be light [or]. On that day [beyom] living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. 

This verse tells us that there is a day known only to God in which there will be no daylight and no night, and which will encompass the annual seasons. As such, the day in question is an extended time period. The significance of this passage is threefold. First, obviously, it gives us an example of yom being used with a numerical modifier to refer to a long period of time. Second, the word yom is used twice in close proximity, but has two different definitions: daylight and an indefinite period of time. This is precisely what I'm claiming is the case in the account of the first day of creation in Genesis 1:5, which reads

God called the light [or] "day" [yom], and the darkness he called "night" [layelah]. And there was evening ['ereb], and there was morning -- the first day [yom echad].

If Zechariah 14:7-8 uses yom to refer to daylight, and yom echad to refer to an undefined period of time, there's nothing unusual in claiming that Genesis 1:5 has these same two definitions as well. In fact, these passages are the only two instances of "yom echad" in the entire Old Testament. This strongly suggests that the first day of creation was not a calendar day.

This leads to my third point: Zechariah 14:7-8 also contains several of the other terms in Genesis 1:5, such as or (light), layelah (night), and 'ereb (evening). That makes it the closest semantic parallel to Genesis 1:5 in the Bible. In order to defend the calendar-day interpretation, one would have to say that all of these parallels -- the same words, as well as yom echad referring to a long time period in close proximity to yom without modification referring to daylight -- are irrelevant. I'm afraid I don't find that position to be credible.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Thursday, September 5, 2013


I haven't posted about any of my short stories for a while, but I'm still writing them. You can read them here. I haven't posted any new chapters in my SF novel in progress for some time, but that's because I haven't had the time. I still know which direction I want the story to go.